Dutch politics: stealing populism from the populists?

Words by Matt Richards & Marijn Thijs

“The Netherlands has said no to the wrong kind of populism.”

These were the words of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte after his party, the VVD, secured the most seats in the country’s recent parliamentary elections, after facing off against the so-called ‘Dutch Trump’ – Mr Geert Wilders – and his second-best PVV party.

But wait. The wrong kind of populism? What does that mean? So Geert Wilders is the wrong kind, and Mark Rutte is the right kind?

Much of Dutch media is currently focused on the intricacies of political coalition formation. But, with the future of European politics still dominated by populist uprisings, here at Zeitwurst we decided we’d take a look at the PM’s rather confusing take on the topic.

Back in January, whilst appearing on Dutch interview show Buitenhof, Rutte explained his version of ‘good populism’. Translated from Dutch, he claimed that “populism is that you, as a politician, are not there for yourself, but that you are there to solve problems of people in the country about which people are worried. And that you don’t just act from your party’s interest but primarily from the interest of the country.”

But isn’t that what politicians have always done? Or to put it more accurately, what they should have been doing? Rutte said that he tries to be a ‘good populist’, but doesn’t that just mean being a good politician?

Rutte went on to define bad populism: “You walk away when you have to take responsibility, and that you only shout while having no solutions, and you go against Dutch values”. In other words, being a bad politician, right?

“Populism is a catch-phrase,” says Emilie van Outeren, a political journalist for NRC Handelsblad. Catch-phrasing can stand out in a splintered and complicated electoral system. With thirteen parties in its 150 seat Parliament and most governments involving three or four of them at any one time, complexity is definitely the name of the game.

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‘Polling Station’ (photo by Matt Richards)

Rutte the populist?

In a bid for greater clarity around the concept, we spoke to Professor Lars Rensmann, an expert in European party systems at the University of Groningen, who suggests that populism is “an undefined term”.

He speculates on four definitions of ‘good populism’. Rutte could simply mean attempts to appeal to Wilders voters. Or he could mean the breaking down of complex policies into something more understandable. Alternatively, he could mean taking a clearer moral stance on particular issues. Or he could mean adopting the “prejudiced rhetoric” of the PVV.

Van Outeren suggests that populism isn’t an ideology, but “more of a way of doing politics.” Though this is correct, and populism can span the political spectrum, within national contexts words and actions are connected. It has been widely reported that the PVV have been successful in pulling the VVD further to the right on issues of immigration and integration. This was reflected by the VVD’s campaign slogan of ‘Normaal Doen’ – Act Normal – which used a simplistic statement to imply that there is a ‘normal’ version of a Dutch person that should be adhered to.

Act Normal

VVD campaign poster: “Being able to walk hand in hand without fear”… “Very normal, not normal, act normal”.

“Acting normal doesn’t mean you can’t be different anymore,” says Laura Huisman, a spokesperson for the VVD. She explains that it’s more about following the “written and unwritten” rules of decency. According to her, examples of this include refraining from jumping on police cars or beating up ambulance personnel.

Okay, but how does this translate to the actions of politicians? Huisman says it’s about “sensible politics”. She gives an example: “Putting a fence or military around 1200 kilometers of Dutch border sounds appealing to some, but it’s also an exaggeration.”

It is a fine line to walk, however. Back in September, Mark Rutte said that if people don’t follow these societal rules, they can “pleur op” – bugger off. He was then subject to considerable scrutiny and criticism, not necessarily of what he meant, but of the way he said it.

A risky move

Clearly, trying to steal populism from the populists is a dangerous game. When you use semi-inflammatory language in the context of complicated political situations such as immigration and integration, is this good populism? Or a cynical attempt to take Wilders voters from him?

Professor Rensmann highlights the danger of this approach. “Voters don’t usually go for the bad copycat,” he says. His view of the campaign slogan is similar: ‘If you intended to vote for Wilders you’re not switching because Rutte makes a statement that is similar. That’s naïve actually.”

Cas Mudde, an academic expert in politics and extremism at the University of Georgia and University of Oslo, agrees. He wrote recently in the New York Times that, “fighting the right-wing populists on their terms may guarantee an immediate electoral victory. But ultimately the government that finally emerges from that fight will have its coherence and stability undermined.”

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Ballot papers on election day (photo by Matt Richards)

Mudde suggests that, given that the ideological positioning of the PVV and VVD are actually closer than those of the VVD and some other parties, “the government will be rightly perceived as an Anti-Wilders coalition. This will play right into Wilders hands.”

Wilders is currently proving this point. In a debate in the Lower House of the Dutch Parliament on Tuesday he called Rutte out for his coalition negotiations with the Green Left Party. “People that have a big mouth about all sorts of themes, and then go round the table with the party that propagates the exact opposite, those are the wrong kind of populists,” he said.

A moral stance

This sort of negotiation process appears to be what Rutte would describe as ‘good populism’. But is there any way for him to practice a good populism that goes beyond just doing what politicians should be doing anyway – listening, representing and not being self-interested?

Mark Rutte

Prime Minister Mark Rutte (source: VVD website)

Rensmann suggests the recent diplomatic incident with Turkey is one such case. The situation involved a Turkish Minister wanting to go to the Netherlands to address Dutch Turks regarding the upcoming Turkish referendum that will seek to give President Erdogan far-reaching powers. Turkey was told that the minister would not be allowed in the country.

Within just a few days high level diplomatic relations were suspended and President Erdogan calling the Dutch government “Nazi remnants”. In a world where diplomatic relations usually move at a snail’s pace, it’s fair to say things went downhill fast.

“It’s very often for economic reasons other diplomatic interests they [politicians] don’t take a principled stance against injustice and they should,” he says. “The fact that he took a very political, moral and clear stance to which the vast majority of Dutch society and European society agrees – to take a harsher stance on Turkey’s aspiring dictatorship – that is something that brought him a lot of voters.”

Despite this example, Rensmann doesn’t see Rutte as a populist. “There are too many other aspects to his policies, and he is in many ways too nuanced.” In fact, for Rensmann there is no ‘good’ populism. He thinks that the concept creates a division between an imagined “corrupt elite and the good people, which does not exist because we are all members of society, and society is complex”.

The coalition structure of Dutch politics is certainly complex, with the large spectrum of voices in Parliament usually creating a government that is, rather conversely, determinedly middle ground. But with politics around the world in a state of flux, national political narratives from individual countries are transcending borders, no more so than within the European Union. Following Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, and with an uncertain political future in France and German, the words of specific politicians deserve proper attention.

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